Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Bring on romance! But there's more to marriage / Chayei Sara

Everyone likes a good romance, even the most recalcitrant curmudgeon. Several weeks ago we read Torah’s sweeping statement, Hence a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh (Genesis 2:24). Torah expresses an ideal: that if possible, a person find an ezer k’negdo, a helpmeet – best friend, confident, lover, intellectual partner – with whom to forge a life. (Torah presumes a heterosexual union, but we know that homosexual unions can enjoy the same qualities.) The ideal – finding an ezer k’negdo who is a true soulmate – happens, but less frequently than any romantic (and even hardened realists) would hope.

As Torah chronicles the generations from Adam and Eve through our patriarchs and matriarchs, we find such a union in Isaac and Rebekah.

In this week’s parashah, Chayei Sara, Abraham sends his trusted servant Eliezer to Nahor in Aram-naharaim (in Mesopotamia) to find a wife for Isaac from among his own kin. Abraham’s ties to the Land of Israel are deep, but he does not want Isaac to marry a local because they are steeped in idolatrous practices. How is a suitable partner to be found for Isaac? Is there a shadchan (matchmaker)? Rather, Eliezer administers a test of character:
[Eliezer] made the camels kneel down by the well outside the city [of Nahor], at evening time, the time when women come out to draw water. And he said, “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, grant me good fortune this day, and deal graciously with my master Abraham: Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townsmen come out to draw water; let the maiden to whom I say, ‘Please, lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels’ – let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac. Thereby shall I know that You have dealt graciously with my master.” (Genesis 24:10-14)
Eliezer is immediately rewarded by the approach of Rebekah, whose generosity and graciousness are matched only by her beauty. This is the stuff of romantic legend, and the epic continues in the tent of her father, Bethuel where Eliezer breathlessly tells his tale and Rebekah accedes to the marriage although she has never laid eyes on Isaac.

The scene Torah paints for us of the first glimpses Isaac and Rebekah have of one another is delightfully romantic:
Isaac went out walking in the field toward evening and, looking up, he saw camels approaching. Raising her eyes, Rebekah saw Isaac. She alighted from the camel and said to her servant, “Who is that man walking in the field toward us?” and the servant said, “That is my master.” So she took her veil and covered herself. The servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. Isaac then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebekah as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death. (Genesis 24: 63-67)
In fact, this is the first time Torah has told us of two people falling in love with one another. And it will not happen again soon.

The Rabbis pondered how such a match is made. Could Eliezer have known that Isaac and Rebekah would connect on such a deep level, or was it pure luck? Or perhaps God intervened behind the scenes? We find this whimsical story in the midrash that makes the point that such unions are not easily made, and are a precious thing:
A Roman matron asked Rabbi Yossi how long it took God to create the world. He replied: “Six days.” She asked: “What has your God been doing since then?” Rabbi Yossi replied: “Making matches. This man to that woman, this woman to that man.” The Roman matron replied with surprise: “Is that all? Why anyone can do that!” Rabbi Yossi observed, “It may seem easy to you, but for God making a good match is as difficult as parting the Reed Sea.” But to prove her point, the Roman matron returned home and lined up all her household servants – 1000 men and 1000 women, paired them up and married them off. The following morning they returned to her, one with a black eye, one with a bruised face, one limping, and another wounded, each with its own misery and saying, “This one that you designated for me I do not want.” The Roman matron sent for Rabbi Yossi and said, “Rabbi your Torah is truth and it is beautiful and praiseworthy. You spoke well in all you said.” (Beraishit Rabbah 68 and Vayikra Rabbah 8)
Torah is, above all things, down to earth. Marriage is about respect and loyalty over the long term. It entails creating a household, raising children (if the couple chooses and enjoys that blessing), and sticking around for the duration. And yes, some marriages need to end; Torah provides for this, as well. Torah is no romance novel. By setting the bar where it does, Torah encourages us all to identify what is valuable and enduring in our primary relationships and find strength and support in that.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Friday, October 22, 2010

Bring back sacrifices? / Parshat Vayera

Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac on Mt. Moriah is often interpreted in light of the idolatrous sacrifice of children to the god Molekh. Human sacrifice, and in particular child sacrifice, were common in the ancient world. The story of the Akedah (the Binding of Isaac) is often understood as the Torah’s seminal account concerning sacrifice and worship: human sacrifice was replaced by animal sacrifice.

Torah reviles human sacrifice. Leviticus 18:21 instructs:
Do not allow any of your offspring to be offered up to Molekh, and do not profane the name of your God: I am the Lord.
Leviticus 20:2-5 tells us:
The Lord spoke to Moses: Say further to the Israelite people: Anyone among the Israelites, or among the strangers residing in Israel, who gives any of his offspring to Molekh, shall be put to death; the people of the land shall pelt him with stones. And I will set My face against that man and will cut him off from among his people, because he gave of his offspring to Molekh and so defiled My sanctuary and profaned My holy name. And if the people of Israel should shut their eyes to that man when he gives of his offspring to Molekh, and should not put him to death, I Myself will set My face against that man and his kin, and will cut off from among their people both him and all who follow him in going astray after Molekh.

In a later age, after the Second Temple was destroyed, Torah, Avodah, and Gemilut Chasadim (Torah study, worship, and deeds of loving kindness) came to replace animal sacrifice. While God did not explicitly forbid the continuation of the sacrificial cult, as the account of the Akedah has been understood to forbid human sacrifice, but rather Torah, Avodah, and Gemilut Chasadim filled the void after the Destruction of 70 C.E.

Rambam (Moses Maimonides, 1135-1204) famously wrote in his philosophical treatise Moreh Nevuchim (Guide for the Perplexed) that the sacrificial cult was a primitive state of religious practice that God intended from the beginning to be phased out eventually and replaced by an intellectually and philosophically superior mode of worship: prayer. For Rambam, the rabbinic troika of Torah-Avodah-Gemilut Chasadim is far preferable to the earthy, smelly, noisy rites of the Temple. (Yet Rambam describes in his law code, Mishneh Torah, a vision of the reconstructed Third Temple in which priests again officiate at animal sacrifices. Curious, no?)
Are we moving forward? Are we progressing through stages of spiritual growth, from human sacrifice, to animal sacrifice, to worship without blood? If we are, is it all gain, or are we (forgive the pun) sacrificing something along the way?

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, in a letter written in 1911, wondered how Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac demonstrated greater love and fervor than the sacrifices made by idol-worshipers of the same era. He recognized that we ought not presume that idolatry is no more than a fearful effort to acquiesce to the frivolous or capricious demands of primitively-conceived imaginary gods. Idolatrous worship can also reflect deep awareness of the divine in the world and a desire to reach out to, and commune with the divine. The challenge of the Akedah for us, Kook wrote, is not the simplistic claim that Abraham’s worship of Adonai was superior to pagan practices, but rather whether our intellectual and philosophical understanding of God, our primarily cerebral approach to being in covenant with God, can compete with the blood, sweat, and tears – the earthy and gripping daily encounter with life and death – that characterizes paganism.

Our modern, streamlined, sophisticated, aesthetic worship strikes many as dull and uninspiring. Whether it be davening so fast few can truly delve into the meaning of the words, or endless responsive readings and prayers-turned-into-performance-pieces, many Jews find Jewish worship fails to move them. This is not a call to return to animal sacrifices – far from it! – but rather a call to consider what it is that moves people and helps them find their place under the wings of the Shekhinah (God’s indwelling Presence on earth) in the synagogue.

Perhaps the answer lies in the notion of “sacrifice” after all. When we give up something of ourselves to someone, we bind ourselves to them. When we challenge people to reconsider the way they think, work, value others, live, and love, they must often give up something of themselves in order to change and improve. When our worship includes study of prayers and sacred texts that afford this challenge, people are moved. When we provide opportunities for discussion and exchange of ideas, the telling of stories, people can bring their gifts to the altar, sharing them with the community. Certainly there are other factors, as well (music leaps to mind. There is no one formula because we are all different, but there are many intriguing and promising approaches we can try.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Grand Scheme or Plan C? / Parshat Lech Lecha

The Lord said to Avram: Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you. I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse him that curses you; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you. (Genesis 12:1-3)
Upon these words, Avram sets foot into history, the progenitor of the People Israel, God’s first covenantal partner. Were the People Israel and the covenant at Sinai part of God’s grand plan from the beginning? If we view these from the perspective of Torah alone, we came into being to serve God’s larger purpose once God realized what humanity was like. But seen through the eyes of the Rabbis, the Jewish People was part of the Grand Scheme before the world was created.

First, Torah’s view: God created people to live in the Garden of Eden forever. Imagine eternity in Club Med, but with only one other person, no responsibility, and no moral discernment. God thinks the people have everything, but Eve recognizes that an essential component of her humanity is missing. Without moral discernment, she and Adam are just more sophisticated versions of the other animals lumbering around the Garden. The Tree of Life keeps them alive, but it is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil that will permit them to become truly, fully, and genuinely human: creatures with moral discernment, free will, and the capacity to choose good over evil. Eve eats the fruit, feeds it to Adam, and thereby gives life to all humanity. But life must now be lived outside the Garden, where conditions are tough. God’s Plan A has failed: people cannot live meaningful lives without moral discernment and prefer being fully human to being immortal.

So God inaugurates Plan B: life outside the Garden. There, human ambition and aggression take over and humanity descends into an abyss of violence and corruption. God has placed no restrictions on human behavior. No surprise then that evil is ubiquitous. God decides to wipe out all life save a representative sampling to repopulate the world: Noah, his family, and the animals are brought onto the ark. Plan B is washed away in the waters of the flood.

God institutes Plan C after the Flood waters recede and life is reestablished on earth: God chooses one man – Abraham – and grows him into a family, and grows the family into a nation, and makes a covenant with that nation at Mt. Sinai, giving them a Torah – a constitution designed to teach them how to behave with compassion, pursue justice, and build a society in which the most vulnerable are protected rather than victimized, and all people have the opportunity to live lives of decency and holiness. From this perspective, the Jewish People are Plan C, a thought that arises in the mind of God as a corrective to the problem of humanity out of control.

God births humanity in the Garden of Eden, and like every parent, God does not know precisely what they will be like, nor how they will behave, until they grow and develop and show their true colors. Like every human parent, God must adapt God’s strategy for dealing with them, experiment on occasion, and change course when a strategy does not work well.

Now the Rabbis’ view: For our Sages, the Jewish people were part of the Grand Scheme from the beginning. Midrash Beraishit Rabbah 1:1 tells us that the word “beginning” – as in “In the beginning God created” – is code for “Torah” and signals that Torah was used as the very blueprint for creating the universe:
The Torah declares: I was the working tool of the Holy One blessed be God. In human practice, when a mortal king builds a palace, he builds it not with his own skill but with the skill of an architect. The architect moreover does not build it out of his head, but employs plans and diagrams to know how to arrange the chambers and the wicket doors. Thus God consulted the Torah and created the world, while the Torah declares, "In the beginning God created" (Genesis 1:1), "beginning" referring to the Torah, as in the verse, "The Lord made me as the beginning of his way" (Proverbs 8:22).
In other words, the Torah precedes Creation. God pulls Torah out of a back pocket, unrolls it on a table, gazes into it, and uses it to create the universe, just as an architect uses a blueprint, or as a chef uses a recipe.

This raises some interesting questions:
  • Does it matter if we are Plan C to convey God’s teaching and healing to the world, or whether we were part of the Grand Scheme from the beginning?
  • How does the distinction between being part of the Grand Scheme, and being Plan C, impact our relationship with the world?
  • Stepping back, we might also ask: Do you believe that the Jewish People have a mission in the world? If so, what is it? Alternatively, does the idea of a Jewish mission to humanity bother you?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, October 4, 2010

Parshat Noach / A New Road in a Water-Sogged World

Our parashah opens with these words:
This is the line of Noah – Noah was a righteous man, he was blameless in his age, Noah walked with God. (Genesis 6:9)
Midrash Tanhuma observes that Noah’s name appears three times in this verse and comments that Noah was in a unique position to see three different worlds: the world when it was first settled, the world when it was destroyed by the flood, and the world when it was once again settled after the flood.

But just how unique is Noah’s experience? Isn’t it the case that anyone who has survived a disaster has experienced three different worlds: the world before, the world of disaster, and the world after? This leads me to ask: is the world so different before and after, or is it we who are changed by our experience?

Who wouldn’t do their utmost to avoid tragedy and the often-ensuing trauma it brings in its wake? Yet so much is out of our control. What remains in our power – even when it seems all control is lost – is our response: how we frame what has happened in our minds, and how we respond morally. The last passage of the Flood story, ignored by most, interpreted by many, provides a fine example. We are told that after the people emerged from the ark, Noah planted a vineyard. He drank the wine, became drunk, and lay naked inside his tent.
Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a cloth, placed it against both their backs and, walking backward, they covered their father’s nakedness; their faces were turned the other way, so that they did not see their father’s nakedness. (Genesis 10:22-23)
First, I’d like to dispense with the most notorious misinterpretation, that Ham commits homosexual rape on his father, Noah, and that his descendants, the Canaanites, are consigned to slavery as punishment (see verse 25). This absurd and offensive interpretation was used to justify American slavery of Africans. There is nothing in the text to suggest that Ham has sexual, or even physical contact with his father, Noah. Rather, Ham treats his father with extreme disrespect, thereby violating the most fundamental societal relationships: parent-child. Noah is drunk, yes, but in his private tent. Ham calls his brothers over to witness their father’s state and thereby seeks to humiliate him before his own sons. This is precisely the sort of behavior that brought on the flood: rampant immorality and disregard of human dignity, even in the primary relationship of parent-child. Ironically, we compound the problem – and exemplify the antediluvian world when we use passages such as this to further a homophobic social agenda. It is now only two weeks since Tyler Clementi’s anguished plunge off the George Washington Bridge, the fourth teen in little more than a week to commit suicide in response severe bullying. To use this passage to further the sin of homophobia is suggest that the world after the flood is not qualitatively different than the world before the flood.

And indeed, Torah is telling us in this closing passage of the Flood account that human nature has not changed. Evil is not “out there” but rather “in here” – in our minds and hearts. Our Rabbis taught that we are endowed with two yetzarim (instincts, or urges) – one to do good and one to do evil. These two yetzarim struggle with one another continually, and our job is to ensure that the yetzer tov (the good inclination) wins out over the yetzer ra (the evil inclination).

But note how two of the three brothers respond: Shem and Japheth refuse to partake in Ham’s humiliation of their father. Instead, they discretely and respectfully cover their father’s nakedness put him to bed to sleep off the wine. Noah has been through a trauma. He is the poster child for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). The world – and his life – will never be the same. He has witnessed unspeakable horror, which he could not prevent, and he is forever changed. His initial response – getting rip-roaring drunk – is not a hopeful sign, but his sons’ loving and respectful protection of his dignity is a highly hopeful sign. They pave a new road for humanity, one in which even in the face of violence and trauma, a humane and loving response is possible.

What is the message for us? The world does not change until we change. In a world of increasingly corrupt and crass behavior we can redouble our efforts to respond with patience, kindness, and the conviction that decency matters.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman